For a son of Yemeni immigrants, the American dream takes the form of reawakening his ancestral homeland to its coffee legacy, the foundation for the industry he hopes to build.
In his latest book, acclaimed novelist and McSweeney’s founder Eggers (Heroes of the Frontier, 2016, etc.) offers an appealing hybrid: a biography of a charming, industrious Muslim man who has more ambition than direction; a capsule history of coffee and its origins, growth, and development as a mass commodity and then as a niche product; the story of Blue Bottle, the elite coffee chain in San Francisco that some suspect (and some fear) could turn into the next Starbucks; an adventure story of civil war in a foreign country; and a most improbable and uplifting success story. The protagonist, Mokhtar Alkhanshali, not only made it back from Yemen after the U.S. Embassy had closed, leaving remaining American citizens to their own devices, but he was followed by a boatload of some of the richest, best coffee the world has known, “the most expensive coffee Blue Bottle has ever sold…$16 a cup.” One delicious irony is that neither the author nor his subject had been much interested in coffee exotica, with the former initially dismissing anyone “who waited in line for certain coffees made certain ways…[as] pretentious and a fool,” while the latter had only had a couple dozen cups of coffee in his life before he became a grader of beans and then an importer. But this book is about much more than coffee or Muslim immigrants or the conflicts in Yemen—it is about the undeniable value of “U.S. citizens who maintain strong ties to the countries of their ancestors and who, through entrepreneurial zeal and dogged labor, create indispensable bridges between the developed and developing worlds, between nations that produce and those that consume.”
Eggers gives his hero a lot of thematic baggage to carry, but it is hard to resist the derring-do of the Horatio Alger of Yemenite coffee.